With her golden braids, hazel eyes, sing-song delivery and complicated feminist consciousness, Yo Yo (Yolanda Whitaker) cuts an unusual figure in ruffneck rap. After making her star-is-born cameo on Ice Cube’s “It’s a Man’s World” in 1990, the Los Angeles MC declared herself the leader of a sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves movement of Intelligent Black Women and set about leveling hip-hop’s sexual playground on Make Way for the Motherlode, a strong debut enthusiastically produced by Cube, Sir Jinx and Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Something of a West Coast analogue to Queen Latifah, Yo works out the details of her position on the fly, offering advice (“Girl, Don’t Be No Fool”), romantic negotiations (“Tonight’s the Night,” “I Got Played”) and declarations of independence (“Sisterland,” “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo”) that flow too easily into generic boasting (“Make Way for the Motherlode,” “Ain’t Nobody Better”). Repeatedly announcing one’s intelligence isn’t the same as consistently demonstrating it.
Recorded with Cube, Jinx and DJ Pooh, Black Pearl serves Yo Yo up on a more ambitious plate of fashions and funk, setting her cautionary romantic insights to verse in “You Should Have Listened,” scanning the decimation of her environment in “A Few Good Men,” bristling with step-off toughness on tracks like “Cleopatra” and “Black Pearl” and humorously debating the issues with an unnamed male foil in “Hoes.” But “Woman to Woman” forgets all that high-minded stuff about intelligent black womanhood and descends to tart-tongued wrassling over an unfaithful man; “Will You Be Mine” gets all mushy (and oily) without any intent beyond the obvious. Yo Yo is a sharp, energetic rhymer with lots of ideas, but she’s a commercial artist first and a reliable commentator second; there are limits to taking her seriously.
The disappointing You Better Ask Somebody picks up the remaining slack in a concerted attempt to join the profitable gangsta world of strapped insensibility. Converting the IBW acronym to a meaningless verb (“IBWin’ wit My Crewin’ “), Yo Yo grabs her Uzi and chronic, jumps in her ride and starts threatening people. There’s the sound of gunplay on “Can You Handle It?”; “Girls Got a Gun” tries a Sister Souljah-like racial rationale for learning how to shoot. As a procession of producers keeps her moving to varied beats from scratchy old-school to slinky G-funk, the self-declared “Mackstress” sells herself out with dismaying speed and obviousness for someone who once claimed a principled mission. Comedian Martin Lawrence provides crude running commentary in “Letter to the Pen,” Yo’s solidarity missive to someone behind bars; Ice Cube plays Barrow to Yo Yo’s Parker in “The Bonnie and Clyde Theme,” which paints violence as romantic devotion.
Total Control brings Cube back for a second chapter of “Bonnie and Clyde” and otherwise continues Yo Yo’s progress into an all-purpose sampler of current cushy R&B grooves, making for Long Beach with guest Breed on “Tre Ride” and going the related Montel Jordan route on “One for the Cuties.” Yo’s skills are intact (see “Da Risin’ ” and the sexy “Body Work”), but she relegates them to a subordinate role, undercutting her once-distinctive approach with too many generic moves.